I'm intrigued to learn that Sam Harris is a gun nut. Not just me, there's been a lot of comment about it (see this excellent piece by the Guardian's Andrew Brown). His passionate defence of gun ownership reads like a PR piece for the National Rifle Association, and his solution to schools killings is the same as theirs - to post armed guards in schools. He demands that people show 'greater responsibility' in dealing with public violence, which for him means encouraging gun ownership.
Harris's high-profile opposition to Islam potentially makes him a target, so he has an excuse for taking drastic precautions. But he candidly admits that he's always loved guns, and can't understand why other people don't see the need for them. He owns guns and trains with them regularly, with the ever-present worry that his home may be invaded by gunmen who he needs to be ready to deal with.
Most of my friends do not own guns and never will. When asked to consider the possibility of keeping firearms for protection, they worry that the mere presence of them in their homes would put themselves and their families in danger. Can't a gun go off by accident? Wouldn't it be more likely to be used against them in an altercation with a criminal? I am surrounded by otherwise intelligent people who imagine that the ability to dial 911 is all the protection against violence a sane person ever needs.
Like most gun owners, he adds, he understands the 'ethical importance' of guns and cannot honestly wish for a world without them.
Ethical importance? This is baffling to Europeans, as it must be for many Americans as well. We take the need for strict gun control absolutely for granted - it just isn't an issue. The dangers arising from such lethal weapons being kept in homes are surely too obvious to need stating. As for their uses in fending off an attack, we aren't so naïve as to assume that coppers will magically show up in seconds, wrestle the weapon from the mugger's hands and march him off to jail. But we do think that strong gun laws minimise the likelihood of our ever being in that situation in the first place.
The arguments on both sides have been fully aired since the recent Sandy Hook school shooting, so I won't add to them (except to mention that I don't in the least accept the equivalence Harris proposes between deaths caused by guns and the far greater number caused by the infections that allegedly result from doctors and nurses not washing their hands). What interests me here is the idea of such notions being supported by a leading atheist and an admired rationalist thinker.
The religions which Harris so heartily despises - in their teachings if not in their practice - hold in common an aversion to aggression and violence. In Christianity it's about turning the other cheek, not even trying to resist attack. In Asian philosophies to inflict physical harm upon someone else is to incur karmic debts. In real life this is quite impractical, however, and like most people I guess I'm somewhere in the middle: if attacked, I'm sure I'd defend myself, and might even degenerate into a homicidal frenzy if I saw family members being harmed. But I dread to think what would the consequence would be in such cases if I happened to carry a gun, or could easily grab it from a drawer. It would make it so much worse of a disaster. And I don't think one has to be religious to be concerned about having the death or maiming of a fellow-human on one's conscience.
If morality in a spiritual perspective is about not playing the violence game, it should perhaps not be a surprise that a convinced atheist allows himself to flirt with it, in the name of some supposedly more obvious ethic. (This, as I understand it, is that gun ownership makes it possible for upstanding citizens to respond to aggression on their helpless neighbours, whereas the lack of them makes them passive wimps.) All the more so if - as is so strongly the case with Harris - his idea of religion is coloured by its historical tendency to violence, to the extent that its underlying moral message is rather overshadowed. If he considers that morality is a utilitarian, human invention - and that there is no future state, and no karmic debt - then he is free to make his own decisions about how he makes himself secure.
But this is a highly individualistic position, and not one that is generally shared by other atheists (see this sensible piece defending gun control by a colleague of Richard Dawkins.) It's hard to escape the sense that Harris's moralising is at least partly driven by a deep fascination with the object of the gun itself and the unnatural power that its ownership confers - at least that's how American gun worship looks to Europeans. It utterly fails to acknowledge the deeply destablising effect of gun ownership on human society, one that far outweighs the threat from knives and other potential weapons.
It also attests to a deep personal paranoia. As I say, Harris would have special reasons for being afraid, but this seems to be a general undercurrent in American, typically rightwing thinking, one that is purely emotive. Somehow that's all of a piece with his angry tirades against Islam. Harris is famous as a rationalist, and I've always admired his clarity, passion and candour. But his insistence that a society becomes more ethical and secure by making guns more accessible is not obviously the thinking of a rational person.